Questions are being raised about the safety of a proposed shipping channel for oil and gas supertankers on British Columbia's central coast after a freighter struck rocks near Kitimat.
The Petersfield, a 41,000 deadweight ton bulk carrier loaded with soda ash and lumber products, sustained severe damage to its bow during the mishap in Douglas Channel last Friday night.
The freighter, which took on water but did not spill any pollutants, is under tug escort Friday, headed for ship repair yards in Vancouver.
The incident came to light Thursday after the Gitga'at First Nation issued a press release asking what had caused the heavy damage to a ship that came limping into Kitimat harbour.
"The ship currently docked at Kitimat looking like a prizefighter with a broken nose is an ugly reminder of the threat posed by proposed pipelines and tanker traffic to the territory of the Gitga'at First Nation," said the statement issued by the band, which is based in Hartley Bay, on Douglas Channel.
The Gitga'at have long been concerned about the supertankers that will be using the channel if the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines project goes ahead. The proposed pipeline would link the Alberta oil sands to the port of Kitimat, which would be served by ships known as VLCC's, or very large crude carriers, of up to 320,000 deadweight tons. The Exxon Valdez, which ran aground and caused a massive oil spill off Alaska in 1989, was 211,000 DWT.
"Even at its relatively small size, the Petersfield came close to causing environmental damage because she was likely carrying thousands of barrels of fuel," said the statement.
"If, for whatever reason, a ferry or a small freighter cannot successfully navigate our precarious waterways, what assurances can be offered that a VLCC will never hit a submerged pinnacle or unfamiliar islet," the band asked.
The Gitga'at got a close look at a shipping disaster three years ago when the BC Ferries vessel, Queen of the North, ran aground nearby and sank within minutes.
Chris Wilson, Marine Use Planning Co-ordinator for the Haisla band, located near Kitimat, says the band is worried a tanker could spill oil onto shellfish beds.
"If you look at the Exxon Valdez, a lot of the stocks there have not recovered from that yet. It's a long-term impact if there is a spill," he said.
But Steve Greenaway, vice-president of public and government affairs for Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, said there is little chance an oil tanker could have a similar accident.
He said Enbridge experts have travelled the world studying oil-port and tanker technology and are confident a fail-safe system can be engineered for Kitimat.
One safety feature, he said, will see oil tankers tethered to powerful, state-of-the-art tugs as they transit coastal waters.
"We have simulated similar incidents [on computers]" he said of the Petersfield accident. "And we have found the tethered escort acts as a very good safety mechanism. The tug can prevent that type of accident."
Kevin Obermeyer, president and CEO of Pacific Pilotage Authority, said the Petersfield "experienced a gyro data input failure," which knocked out several bridge systems, including steering.
"This resulted in the vessel rapidly going off course in the Douglas Channel, in the vicinity of the western end of Maitland Island," he said in an e-mail.
The Pacific Pilotage Authority provides pilots to guide ships through inshore waters on the B.C. coast.
Carrie Mishima, communications consultant for Canadian Coast Guard, said the Petersfield took on water after hitting the rocks, but did not spill oil.
"It sustained some damage to the forepeak [the forward part of a vessel's hull]but the pumps were able to keep up with the water going in. There was no pollution or injuries or loss of life reported," she said.
Rod Nelson, a spokesman for Transport Canada, said hull damage was inspected by divers after the ship returned to Kitimat.
"Transport Canada inspected the vessel and it was cleared to sail to Vancouver for repairs with a tug escort and at reduced speed … and our marine inspectors will ensure the vessel is repaired as required prior to the vessel departing," he said.
Mr. Nelson said the Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.